Mt. Sniktau rises among the snow-swept summits just east of the Continental Divide, a modest peak next to the more impressive fourteeners that surround it. The mountain pushes 13,234 feet above sea level, but the hike to the top takes only about two hours, depending on the wind. In the early 1970s, the mountain was to become one of the jewels of the 1976 Winter Olympics, the site where men and women on skis would race downhill and into sports history.
Almost as quickly as it was proposed as the location for the ’76 alpine races, Mt. Sniktau was abandoned. Among the most critical issues was its viability as a post-Olympics ski resort, though there were myriad other concerns: high winds, a comparatively short descent, and a historic lack of snow during February, when the games were scheduled to take place. The Denver Olympic Organizing Committee (DOOC)—a group of 17 male business executives and politicians charged with putting the games together—had miscalculated badly. This was hardly the group’s first screw-up. It was 1972, and although the Winter Olympics were still four years away, projected costs had already surged from $11 million to $17 million to more than $80 million. Environmental concerns had brought about ferocious opposition. Proposed venues, like Sniktau, were becoming public relations embarrassments.
Cloaked in secrecy and unable to answer important questions from legislators and residents, the DOOC, also known colloquially as the DOC, had itself become an Olympic-size failure. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), frustrated with the seemingly never-ending ineptitude, threatened to take the 1976 Games from Denver.
Forty-four years after the debacle—as public outcry over spending on next month’s Summer Games in Brazil is generating buzz—former Governor Richard Lamm chuckles at the mention of Mt. Sniktau as he sits inside his office at the University of Denver. “Everything that was planned turned out to be so flawed,” says Lamm, now 80, who led opposition to the games as a state representative and later served three terms as governor before becoming a professor of international studies nearly 30 years ago. Spring sunlight filters through his office windows and onto Lamm’s face. It’s been a long time since he first won fame as the youthful Democratic Denver legislator who helped kill the Olympic dream in his adopted city. “And I don’t regret it. Never,” Lamm says. “I didn’t mean to hurt the Olympics, but….”
It started with a white lie. In late 1967, the U.S. Olympic Committee picked Denver as its choice to compete with cities worldwide to host the 1976 Winter Games. It was exciting territory for Colorado, which failed in its proposal to host a joint Colorado Springs–Aspen Winter Olympics in 1960. For a city on its way to becoming the capital of the New West, Denver’s Olympic opportunity was a big deal. Real or perceived, the games would legitimize the city, which wanted to prove itself as something more than flyover country.
Among the first things every Olympic finalist city needs when it wants consideration from the IOC is a bid book. In it, the potential host outlines everything that goes into putting together the games: from naming an Olympic Village to highlighting venues to explaining revenues and costs. In Denver’s case, the DOOC’s bid book was a slickly produced behemoth that was certain to draw attention to the promises made within.
As part of the vetting process for potential hosts, the IOC strongly considers distance between the main city and its venues, both for cost and transit reasons. It was an issue of which the DOOC was all too aware. Because of its proximity to Denver, Mt. Sniktau (and the adjacent Loveland Basin) was picked over undeveloped Copper Mountain as the choice for the men’s giant slalom and other alpine races. Despite unforgiving terrain that would make it unusable as a future resort for anyone other than expert skiers, Sniktau’s main draw was its proximity to the city: The mountain is about an hour drive from Denver.
While the bid book was being completed, a problem arose. The photo that was supposed to accompany the Sniktau ski plan showed a mountain blotched with rocky patches; there wasn’t enough snow. What should have been a major issue turned into nothing more than an inconvenience. For reasons now lost to history, an artist was summoned to airbrush white onto the photo of the mountain.
Faux snow was hardly the only fabrication in the bid book, which was presented to the IOC—along with a 30-minute film—on May 12, 1970, in Amsterdam. In hindsight, the Rocky Mountain News reported the following year, the bid book was “a magnificent piece of salesmanship” that had been built on “a series of misrepresentations.”
Flipping through its pages today, the book is an exercise in what could be considered hopeful misdirection. Or, as then Lieutenant Governor John Vanderhoof admitted, “They lied a bit.” The biggest fib? The group claimed that 80 percent of the Olympic venues were already built, which would keep the Winter Games’ costs significantly down. Because much of the work had already been done, the book claimed, the Olympics could be put on for between $11 million and $17 million.
Only later was it discovered that venues for events such as ski jumping, bobsledding, luge, and cross-country skiing, among others, would require millions of dollars to become viable. Sniktau was, at best, a work in progress. Major hockey games would be played at the Denver Coliseum—requiring costly changes to the permanent floor—though no one on the DOOC had actually spoken to the coliseum’s manager about using the facility. An outdoor speed-skating rink in the city would be under construction soon, but its cost was unknown. Dormitories at the University of Denver would be used for the Olympic Village—in the middle of the school year—but talks with the university’s chancellor were only in preliminary stages. The DOOC also promised hotel rooms for 100,000 visitors when the available number was closer to 35,000.
The bid undoubtedly turned heads at the IOC, which had promoted an “economical games” in response to the overruns that plagued cities in the past. Costs in Sapporo, Japan—the 1972 Winter host—had already topped $70 million. (California’s Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, saw its costs increase from $1 million to more than $10 million in a matter of months.) To the IOC, Denver’s bid appeared near perfect.
After the DOOC’s presentation and multiple visits to Colorado, the IOC picked Denver over Sion, Switzerland; Tampere, Finland; and Vancouver, Canada. The celebration extended across Colorado. “While we come from a large country, we will show the world in 1976 that the Winter Olympic Games can be staged for a modest cost,” Denver Mayor William H. McNichols Jr. said. “We have the facilities now that will enable us to stage the games at the lowest cost ever in recent years. The new facilities that we must build will be a welcome addition to our city and will serve generations of Denverites to come.”
Then everything began to fall apart.
The most formidable opposition to the Denver Olympics early on came from the environmental activists of Protect Our Mountain Environment (POME), a group created to protest potential Olympic developments in the Rocky Mountains. Led by retired University of Denver law professor Vance Dittman, POME fought plans to locate ski jumping, cross-country skiing, and biathlon events west of Denver—projects that would have required man-made snow, dynamite blasting, and bulldozing, not to mention cross-country trails that would run through residential backyards and an elementary school’s playground. When the DOOC attempted to move the events—the proposed ski jump would have required a concrete outrun over Evergreen’s Bear Creek—residents elsewhere put up similar fights.
At the Capitol, Lamm was beginning to raise questions. A transplant to Colorado, Lamm had earned his accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1950s and his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in the early ’60s. He moved to Colorado and soon after, at 32 years old, won his first elected office as the state House representative for south Denver. He initially supported bringing the games to Denver, voting in favor of a 1968 House resolution. But as he studied financing for the games as a member of the Legislative Audit Committee in 1970 (the state had already spent nearly $500,000 to get the Olympic bid and was expected to offer millions more), Lamm couldn’t ignore the numbers. “None of it made sense,” he says today. “The costs didn’t line up. The history of the Winter Olympics was one of red ink, and this looked like more of the same. There was all this talk about international brotherhood, but no one seemed to have an idea of the past overruns. We were talking real money, but the [DOOC] people completely underrated the difficulty of hosting these games.”
Among Lamm’s first allies was state Representative Robert Jackson, a fellow Democrat and an old-school Pueblo politician several years Lamm’s senior. Jackson had raised concerns over the environmental and economic impacts the Olympics would bring to the state. Together, Lamm and Jackson—the transplant and the native Coloradan—formed a group called Citizens for Colorado’s Future and began to recruit volunteers. The group mounted an all-out attack on the organizing committee. Instead of engaging, though, the DOOC treated Lamm’s group as if it didn’t exist. “The DOOC was arrogant and aloof,” Neil Allen, one of the committee’s members, admitted later. “Everyone outside the organization was treated like a clod.”
“They thought if they didn’t engage, then they didn’t have to deal with the questions we were raising,” Lamm says. “After we were being put off and stonewalled, people began beating a path to our door. We just grew and grew.”
By late 1971, shortly after the IOC cleared Denver to host the Olympics, nearly every venue was under serious scrutiny. POME successfully challenged sites; Citizens for Colorado’s Future continued to pound away at the financial issues. The planned bobsled run in Pence Park was eventually dumped. (The DOOC’s most desperate proposal came when Lake Placid, New York—more than 1,800 miles away—was offered up to be the host of Denver’s bobsled events. The idea was rejected, and the two-man bobsled event was cut from Denver’s program.) The DOOC also abandoned Mt. Sniktau and pushed ski events to Vail and Steamboat Springs, a decision that placed events far outside the IOC’s distance requirements. Because of the change, another Olympic Village would need to be secured in the mountains, as would additional transportation. Air service for athletes was given serious consideration.
The proposals led to even greater cost overruns. The price tag on the Denver Games had reached $25 million—about twice the bid-book estimate. Around the same time, Coloradans learned they wouldn’t be able to see the games live on television unless they visited an approved theater and purchased tickets to watch the broadcast via closed circuit. “That was one of the worst ideas the organizing committee had,” says Sam Brown, the former Colorado treasurer who volunteered with Lamm. “They couldn’t get out of their own way.”
In public documents housed in archives around Denver, there’s no record of the committee acting malevolently toward the city or the state. In fact, it appears as though the members had nothing but the best intentions, albeit ones in which budgets, and common sense, didn’t seem to matter. “While we recognize the necessity for deeply probing the economic implications of the Olympic Winter Games at this time, it would be unfortunate if they were judged only in this context,” DOOC president and former Denver City Council member Carl DeTemple wrote to the Colorado House Democratic Caucus in 1972. “The real meaning—which is very much more than just another sporting event—will be grasped by the youth of Colorado.”
Committee members must have been feeling the pressure, though, because they took their arguments to the press. DOOC treasurer G.D. Hubbard told the Rocky Mountain News, “Whether or not we should have the Olympics is not an issue. It can’t be an issue. We’ve got them. The only issue is how’s the best way to hold them.”
But the Olympics were only getting more expensive. Cost estimates by early 1972 had soared to $76.5 million (five to 10 times the initial estimate), and Lamm’s group had collected more than 20,000 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to stop state funding for the games. Without local money, Colorado wouldn’t be able to secure federal funds, which would effectively kill the Olympics in the state. By April, estimated costs jumped again, to between $81.2 million and $92.8 million.
The DOOC begrudgingly opened its meetings to the public, but “the action came too late to rectify [the DOOC’s] image as technically incompetent, politically insensitive, and uncreditable,” according to a 1984 memo—part of a critical postmortem on the DOOC—prepared for a committee that looked into the feasibility of hosting a Salt Lake City Games. On November 7, Colorado voters defunded the Olympics by a 60 to 40 margin. The Denver Games, at least unofficially, were dead.
“Regardless of what Vanderhoof said about lying, I don’t think any of those DOOC guys were liars,” Lamm says now. “They were typical chamber of commerce people. They were boomers, and the West’s history is filled with boomers. We need those kinds of people. But did they act stupidly on some things? I think very smart people can act collectively stupid sometimes.”
Today, Mt. Sniktau is home to a hike that novices frequently use as a training ground before upgrading to larger mountains. Dozens of people each day make their ways up Loveland Pass, park their vehicles along the Continental Divide, and take their first steps up the rocky path toward a forgotten monument to what might have been.
The 1976 Winter Olympics were eventually relocated to Innsbruck, Austria, which had hosted the ’64 Winter Games and thus already had infrastructure in place. Denver became a footnote—the only city in history to accept, and then reject, the Olympics.
That’s hardly an insignificant designation. Even now, four decades after the 1976 Winter Games, the past has to be factored into any bid the state of Colorado might make for a future Olympics. In 2012, a 22-member Denver Olympic Exploratory Committee voted to pursue the 2022 Winter Games—at an estimated bid cost of between $27.8 million and $45 million—but the U.S. Olympic Committee declined to put forward an American city to compete for the event, instead choosing to focus efforts on 2026. Those Winter Olympics certainly appear to be in play for Colorado, though it’s unclear how the rest of the world would react if the state were again chosen as a host. For his part, Jacques Rogge, the IOC’s former president, says, “There would definitely be no grudge for the fact that Denver abandoned the race.” Lamm isn’t so sure. “I’m not going to stick a knife into a dead horse,” the former governor says. “But there’s no chance the IOC has forgotten what happened here.”
On a late spring day earlier this year, Jeff Speake and Mike Zyzda, two friends from Denver, descended Mt. Grizzly, near Mt. Sniktau. A small noontime snowstorm was brewing to the west, the growing white haze blocking out the usually picturesque view of the Citadel’s 13,294-foot peak in the distance. With the hood of his jacket pulled over his head against the wind whipping across the rocky landscape, 55-year-old Zyzda looked in the direction of Sniktau—which was obstructed by a small hill. “That really does seem like a stupid place to put those races,” he said. Speake laughed and nodded. Though he moved to Denver in 1977, the 66-year-old said he would have been concerned about the environmental impact the games might have had on the mountain and the surrounding areas. “I’m glad they didn’t do it,” Speake said. “We’d probably be going up there now to see a beat-up old building and an abandoned chairlift.”
The men adjusted their packs. They took a few steps into the spring snow, then onto bare rock. They continued down the treeless trail, across Colorado’s past, their boot prints an unremarkable postscript to an improbable story.